education, family, mom, reflection

The Gaming Child

He received the game as a Christmas gift.

With the other surprises of the day, he didn’t open the game right away, but when he did, he was hooked.

He sat for hours in his gaming chair, eyes glued to the screen, as he manipulated the controller in his hand to make the character move through one challenge to the next.

He was searching for moons.

He was collecting coins.

He was trying to get to the next level.

He was so engaged with his gaming, he didn’t hear the call to come to dinner and lost all interest in building Legos.

His behavior persisted throughout the winter break and into the new year as he and his older brother bargained and battled for gaming time on the device.

He stopped reading books. He didn’t want to play outside. His entire focus was wrapped inside that game.


As an educator, it’s easy for me to read the story above and fall into the abyss of my bias. To pass judgment on that child. To pass judgment on that parent. To shake my head and lament about life “back in my day” then make a direct correlation to the child’s gaming patterns and his average reading ability. After all, if he spent less time gaming and more time reading, he would receive better grades, become a star student, and master his standardized assessments.

But this story is different. I’m not passing judgment because “that” child is mine and “that” parent is me.

I’m writing this post to let you know that my child is fine, and yours will be, too.

My son received a Nintendo Switch gaming system for Christmas, a shared gift with his older brother who is in high school. Both boys received a chosen game to go with the device and they have played on the system nearly every day since we got it.

But here are the details you didn’t get to read above.

Each day my youngest son begs for us to play Mario Odyssey with him, because he knows we have a greater chance to win a level if we work together.

When he’s not playing the game, he’s watching YouTube videos created by others to learn better strategies on how to master various levels with the greatest number of coins.

He invited a friend over to play the game with him, something this somewhat introverted child never does, as we don’t have many neighbors his age nearby.

We made the gaming day happen, and the joy on his face was immeasurable.

He has battled his own frustration to the point where we have nearly sent him to his room. He has discovered that sometimes persistence and perseverance require not more grit, but a change in task and location.

As his mom, I could have very easily placed time limits on his gaming throughout the week. “No games until the weekend,” or “Only 20 minutes today.” But I know what it’s like to be SO EXCITED TO DO SOMETHING only to be told no repeatedly.

It crushes the soul and makes you resentful over time.

I also know what it’s like to be at school all day, followed by hours at after-school care, when all you want is some time to yourself doing something that makes you happy.

I remember what it’s like to be nine years old.

Caleb playing Mario Odyssey.

As I watch my son playing his game, and invest MY time getting to know about HIS passion, I discover he’s learning things I would have never thought to teach him.

He is solving complex algorithms as he patiently reminds me, “No, Mommy, you can’t do it that way. You can’t just jump. You have to ground pound, then jump, then do a half wall jump, then throw your hat where you want to land, then dive. That’s how you do it.”

He has become the teacher, and I am his student.

I am fiercely protective of my child, as many Momma Bears are, but I am also a seasoned educator and parent with more than twenty years of experience as both.

My son will be fine.

Yours will, too.

If you are concerned about your child’s gaming interests, take the time to learn more about their passion. What is it about the game that intrigues them? What challenges must they overcome to win? What keeps them coming back to play again?

When my oldest son, Daniel, was obsessed with Minecraft, I discovered his innate ability to match colors and shading to create masterpieces of art. Hours of designing and creating sparked an interest in engineering and chemistry, both of which he is exploring in high school. In fact, he once spent an entire afternoon presenting at our district’s Leadership Conference about how to use Minecraft to teach math and science.

When he was in fourth grade.

Daniel first designed the inside of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, LA (notice the complex shading and symmetry from Minecraft blocks).
Daniel then designed the outside of the cathedral wrapped around his previous creation, all from looking at this photo.
Daniel showing district leaders how to apply Minecraft to math and science during our district’s annual Leadership Conference.

As I look across the room at my youngest child, Caleb, I am mesmerized by his ability to remember exactly which kingdom has which star power and his intuitive skill at reading various maps to discover the treasure he seeks.

And just this week, this same nine year old did something I didn’t think was possible.

He actually beat the game.

999 moons. 43 souvenirs. 82 music tracks. Bowser was defeated and he had the joy of seeing every variety of bird on the final ledge, including the elusive penguin.

He even received a digital celebratory postcard showing every single character displayed in the game.

The level of pride my son has for achieving this goal rivals that of student who has received a Principal’s List award at a school assembly.

He knows the satisfaction of accomplishment.

He may never read a 500 page novel and I’m OK with that. (Although, as his book-loving Momma, you can rest assured he is surrounded with books throughout the house should he change his mind!)

He may never play on the high school soccer team and I’m OK with that, too. (Not for lack of trying, of course. He’s done his time with basketball and soccer, neither of which garnered much enthusiasm. Even his interest in swimming waned as he grew older.)

He can put together a 1200 piece Lego set and meticulously create masterpieces with Perler beads, much like his older brother. Perhaps, just perhaps, he is bound for a greater success than I can even imagine in a career that hasn’t yet been created.

It makes me ponder my own instruction as an educator, and wonder if there’s a way we can link this gamification mindset to required curriculum standards in such a way that students can apply these skills to the classroom, too. Are we really preparing our students for future success in this digitally enhanced world?

I don’t have answers, only insights to my child.

I don’t have judgment towards you if you raise your child a different way.

I’m simply bringing to light my experiences and putting them out there from my perspective as I support my child’s passion and celebrate his success.

He’s going to be just fine.

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education, ITRT, reflection

Coding is My Jam

As a technology integrator and instructional coach, much of my interaction with teachers is supporting them in their efforts to use technology in their day-to-day work with students. Their technological expertise ranges from novice to advanced, so each collaboration is personalized to take them from whatever level they are currently at to helping them reach the next level. The goal is to push up a notch, not push off a cliff!

Many subjects align nicely with technology. Digital writing is a great way to reinforce grammar and composition skills. Recording reading makes oral fluency more relevant and easier to assess. Interactive activities that layer text, photo, and more provide students an opportunity to create products to showcase their learning in ways that didn’t exist before.

There are times, however, when we need students to engage in learning experiences that may not be directly tied to testing standards. That’s when it gets a little tricky, because we all know how limited that precious commodity of time is with jam-packed schedules and multiple pacing guides to follow.

In Virginia, we do not follow the Common Core curriculum. Instead, we have our own state guidelines called the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). In November 2017, our state approved Computer Science Standards of Learning for all grades K-8 with specific course standards for the high school level. A quick glance of these standards might give a general classroom teacher heart palpitations as the verbiage is tough to deconstruct if you are not familiar with technical computing language.

Understanding these challenges, coupled with the reality that I am only available in one school 2 days a week (with an occasional 3 day week here and there), I have to get a little creative to find ways to support teachers for their requests while also providing additional experiences that bring non-tested curriculum directly to the students.

Enter the world of collaborative coaching.

Several times a month I sit down with the gifted-talented teacher at my school, Maureen Ambrose, to compare notes on lessons we are doing with teachers and students. When we first began our collaborative planning sessions last year, we mainly touched base to make sure we were on the right track and brainstormed ideas; now we use the time to extend our conversation to creating unique learning experiences for individual classes and grade levels as a whole.

It started with Pirate Day in the fall, where we used a common theme to focus on three learning experiences using technology, one of which was coding with Ozobot robots. Each station was led by either me, Maureen, or the classroom teacher. We offered Pirate Day two days with flexible signup and it was so popular we will offer it again for another two days this spring!

This month, we focused specifically on third grade classes, inviting them to a “Coding is My Jam” learning experience with each station focused on various coding skills. As Brian Aspinall, author of Code Breaker states, “I don’t want all kids to code, but I do want all kids exposed to coding.” (His blog post about going beyond the Hour of Code reminded us of the importance for students to have these experiences all year long, not just in December!)

For Coding is My Jam Day, we transformed our Innovation Lab into a coding studio with three designated areas for each of our activities:

  • Robot Coding – Create a sequence code using designated cards, then input the directions into a remote control and watch the Botley robot move from start to finish. If the output doesn’t work the first time, analyze the code and debug to try again!
  • Coding is My Jam – Using the Osmo “Coding Jam” block coding kit, work with a partner to create unique beats for various instruments to design a new musical soundtrack!
  • Binary Bracelets – Discover the wonderful world of binary code! After a brief overview of the history and purpose of binary code, use a basic binary coding sheet to create an 8-bit code identifying your initials. Then, after planning out your design using a basic storyboard, replace the code with colored beads to string on a pipe cleaner, creating a “readable” coding bracelet. If time allows, you can complete extension activities to create a secret message for a friend using binary code or answer riddles by deciphering the coded answers.
Items used for coding lessons
Botley Robot materials
We created squares on our tile floor for Botley to maneuver through.
Binary Bracelet station
Materials used to create Binary Bracelets
Coding Jam Osmo kit with iPad on display
Osmo Coding Jam station
Coding sheets
Extension activities (with Table Talk Math mats below!)
A quick photo of Maureen and I before all the fun begins!

Prior to our coding day, Maureen visited each third grade classroom to read the book, How to Code a Sandcastle, and play an unplugged coding game called “Let’s Go Code” to build a bit of coding background knowledge. It was a quick interactive intro to hook them in for what was to come!

When Coding is My Jam Day arrived, students entered our coding studio and sat on the floor as Maureen provided a brief overview of each station. During that time, I took the classroom teacher to her station and shared details in how to guide students in their learning. We then began the rotations, using a timer on our cell phone to notify us when it was time to switch stations. We made sure to include a brief discussion at the end, emphasizing the challenges and lessons learned in coding.

What I love about this three station model for learning is that every single student in the class gets to experience every activity in a way that encourages communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and even creativity. There is equity in access to the technology and having three adults in the room helps to guide conversations and pitfalls that inevitably occur.

“See? Coding works!”
Testing the output to see if there are any bugs in the code.
Students work together to create a block code.
Lots of critical thinking when the levels get harder!
Students coding with block coding tiles from Osmo.
Collaboration makes block coding fun!
Student mapping out her initials using binary code and a planning page.
Creating the binary code as a story board before creating the bracelet.
Student creating a Binary Bracelet using beads and a pipe cleaner.
Binary bracelet success!
“We love our Binary Code bracelets!”

For the classroom teacher, it was a 75 minute commitment (30 minute pre-lesson one day and 45 minutes on the Coding is My Jam day), but hit on several of the Computer Science SOLs which actually maximized the time spent. Best of all, we had no behavior issues for either experience, as all students were actively engaged exploring unique tasks that challenged their thinking in a non-threatening way. We even saw several students wearing their binary code bracelets throughout the week!

While there was a bit of work on the pre-planning side (you don’t host an adventure like this without having a strong plan of action!), the actual day of implementation was relatively easy and provided flexibility for Maureen and I to rotate through the other stations offering additional support. We also captured the learning with quick videos to a Flipgrid grid with three topics for the stations we used.

Overview of our Flipgrid topics
Flipgrid Topics for capturing learning

We look forward to offering additional learning opportunities like this throughout the year and encourage others to give it a go, too. You might be surprised how much joy can arise from three little stations in your day! We also want to give a huge “Thank You” to the Virginia Professional Educators for supporting creating learning experiences such as this and providing funding for us to purchase materials to make this day a success!

Used with permission from Sylvia Duckworth

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Innovative Kindness

In our Passion for Kindness Facebook group, we share uplifting posts and videos we see online. Often, it’s kindness given, received, or witnessed. Sometimes it’s a quote of inspiration. I love to see which posts resonate with others. I find that surrounding myself with positive people, even on digital platforms, helps to focus on the good instead of the bad.

About a month ago, I came across a video of a color-blind man receiving a gift from his family: specially crafted glasses that would allow him to see the world around him in vibrant hues of brilliance. As he eagerly unwrapped the glasses and put them on his face, his demeanor completely changed, the drastic change to his sight rendering him speechless, in tears.

The video tugged my heartstrings and made me ponder the impact of empathy and compassion as it relates to innovation. According to the Institute of Design at Stanford, known as Stanford d.school, empathy is not only an integral part of the design thinking process, it’s the very first step. “To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.” (Download “An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE” to learn more.)

I wanted to bring this concept of Innovative Kindness into the classroom, so I created a lesson that would showcase examples of innovations sparked by the kindness of others then lead into a discussion of empathy and compassion.

With students in Mrs. Cross’, Mrs. Miller’s, and Ms. Miller’s classes, we viewed the video of the color-blind man then watched another video of a cat whose owners created a wheeled attachment for his paralyzed hind legs, adding ramps throughout their house to overcome climbing steps. His owners even adapted their innovation to include a handle, so they could assist their feline when he had to climb multiple steps in a row.

We discussed those key words: empathy and compassion. For nine and ten year olds (and even adults!) the words are sometimes used interchangeably. We spent several minutes showing how empathy – that feeling of relating to someone else’s struggle or pain – can lead to compassion, which is empathy in action. We then related those words to the design process, how kindness in action sparks innovation.

Katie Martin reinforces this concept in her book, Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius: “When we empower learners to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem-solvers and innovators.”

Our classroom conversations shifted to the power of innovation in making the world a better place for others. I shared the graphic below as an introduction to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations.

SDG poster courtesy of https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs

We discussed world problems and their impact on humanity. We shined a light on our lives in the United States and the many things we might assume others have like water fountains and quality education. We pondered the challenges that children in other countries face daily.

We then decided that we wanted to change the world, too.

Offering students the choice to work independently, in pairs, or with a small group, we challenged them to identify a problem and create a solution, focusing on the who before the what.

We provided Design Crews with a note sheet to record their planning, then we set them loose in our Innovation Lab’s makerspace – free to use any materials for any purpose. The greatest constraint they faced was time; they only had 20 minutes to create a plan of action and design a prototype.

To download this FREE template, visit http://bit.ly/KindTempShare.

It was incredible to see how quickly our students dove into this activity. They were so engaged! Their collaborative efforts quickly came together as they communicated with the group, one person often refining the ideas of another after testing out their prototype.

Pondering the possibilities
Deep in discussion
Makerspace supplies
Crafting the prototype

Their excitement was contagious! They all wanted to share their innovations that would improve lives of people, land animals, and aquatic life. With the remaining time in class, we guided students in using Flipgrid (many for the very first time!) to capture their creations with voice and video.

Recording their innovations on Flipgrid
They loved seeing each other’s videos!
To view student videos, visit https://flipgrid.com/0a92a047

Many times teachers are hesitant to dive into hands-on projects citing lack of time or availability of resources. However, to transform learning experiences for students, we must make student agency a priority. In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger challenge us to “empower kids to own their learning (and school) through greater autonomy. It is driven by choice, voice, and advocacy.” When you find value in designing lessons with this purpose, you find a way to make it happen.

Through our Innovative Kindness lesson, students had an opportunity to take grade-level state standards and apply them in new, unique ways. They made connections to prior content regarding conservation, natural resources, and recycling. They also practiced the 5 C’s of communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and citizenship, all within the confines of one sixty-minute class period.

There are many creative ways to shine a light on kindness with your students. You might design a Kindness Scavenger Hunt like Laurie McIntosh in Canada or create a month-long virtual Kindness Read-Aloud like Karen Caswell in Australia. You could even introduce kind acts to your students by having them participate in The Great Kindness Challenge January 28 – February 1 by signing up your school and downloading a printable checklist to complete at school or home. (Many more kindness ideas to come when A Passion for Kindness is released next month!)

I would love to know ways you are shifting the focus towards student agency and innovation in your lessons. Comment below and share your inspirations! Together we can transform learning, one lesson at a time!

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What’s In a Name?

Last week a dear friend messaged me, apologizing profusely for mispronouncing my name during a podcast recording. Instantly, I felt empathy for her because I know very well the internal angst you feel in that exact moment of error.

I’ve been there before.

I laughed it off with reassurance that she wasn’t the first and she wouldn’t be the last. People mispronounce my name ALL the time.

They don’t do it to be disrespectful.

They don’t do it to be mean.

They simply don’t know the way my mom decided to pronounce it when she completed my birth certificate so many years ago.

Social Backlash

There have been many posts on social media about the importance of learning students’ names and pronouncing them correctly. I agree wholeheartedly that calling someone by their name – and saying it they way they prefer – adds a level of value to their day and reminds them that their name is important, therefore they are important.

It matters to children. It matters to adults. No debate there.

What troubles me are the social media posts where conversations shift from aiming for excellence to attacking for error. Is there no compassion for those who struggle to “get it right?”

I know the importance in learning someone’s name.

I also know the importance of giving someone grace when they mess it up.

So allow me to share a little vulnerability: I really struggle to remember all your names. And how they are spelled. And how they are pronounced.

I am in awe of those people in my world who have instant recall for everyone they’ve ever met. They match faces with names like Memory cards, winning each game they play.

I’m still trying to figure out why my Memory card is bent.

Weak Link

I have a weak link for recalling names (and multiplication facts, and my assigned lines in a theatrical production, and pretty much anything else that requires memorization.) I never used to address people by name unless I had to. Yes, I knew it was the polite and respectful thing to do, but the fear of saying a name incorrectly (or even worse – saying the wrong name or no name at all) kept my conversations nameless. I avoided introductions at all costs and mentally pleaded for name tags to be provided everywhere I went.

Despite my brain block, I do know who you are.

I recognize your smile and the way your eyes light up as we speak.

I instantly recall shared memories and moments, but for whatever reason your name might remain in the shadows of the corners of my mind.

I wish I could change that about myself. I work diligently to overcome my weaknesses. And yet… they still persist.

About a month ago, I was at a district event where I had invited my dad and his girlfriend to attend. I was introducing them to an educational leader, one whom I’ve known for years. I’ve worked with her on committees and supported initiatives in her building. But in the moment of introduction, I simply couldn’t recall her name. My brain went blank.

It happens.

There was an awkward pause as I prayed for God to save me and He did – the educator smiled at my family members and introduced herself as if no one even noticed my vocal paralysis.

That’s grace.

I recently read an article about Raisa Patel whose name is constantly mispronounced and it resonated with me for several reasons. I felt her pain of a mispronounced name. I felt my embarrassment knowing I’ve caused that feeling for others. I felt a little less alone when I learned about her classmate who resorted to writing down her name phonetically to make it easier to remember.

I do that, too.

In fact, you will often find me jotting down notes in my little aqua blue notebook. It’s one of the coping strategies I’ve created for myself over the years.

What’s In a Name?

Did you know that no one in my family calls me Tamara? It’s true. That’s my birth name, but one my mother never used. (Well, unless I was in trouble. Then she used my first name AND middle name AND last name all bunched together with one breath.)

Like several of you, I grew up with a nickname. People called me Tammy, but with a catch.

Everyone spelled it differently.

My mother spelled it Tammie. My teachers spelled it Tammy. Very rarely did the two spellings align. Sometimes it annoyed my mom, but most times we just overlooked the error and didn’t get riled up.

When I moved up from elementary school to junior high, I wanted to set myself apart from the crowd, be a little different, discover my uniqueness. I decided to change the spelling of my nickname the way I wanted it spelled. I dropped the final “e” and started writing Tammi on all my papers and hoped it would catch on with others.

It didn’t.

My mother continued to spell it Tammie and my teachers kept writing Tammy. Then I met another girl who spelled her name Tammi, so I dropped an “m” and reinvented myself as “Tami.”

In 9th grade I joined the marching band and discovered a clarinet player whose name was Tami. The only difference between our names was that she was born Tami, not Tamara, therefore she had greater claim to the name.

So I added back the “e” and became “Tamie.”

I remained Tamie to all my friends and relatives through high school and into college. Then I became engaged and realized my identity would change again as I took on my fiancé’s last name.

That’s when I decided to give the real name a go as I reinvented myself one more time.

Hello, Tamara.

New Life, New Name

Switching names was easier than I anticipated as I got married and moved to another state. I felt comfortable introducing myself as Tamara instead of Tamie and those whom I met were never the wiser of my 20+ years spent with a different name.

Until I moved back to my hometown twelve years later and my two worlds collided – those who knew me as Tamie and those who knew me as Tamara were now living in the same town.

Who am I anyway? 

I gave up sending Christmas cards when it became too complicated to sign them. (Who is this card going to? Do they know me as Tamara or Tamie?)

The running joke in my family now is trying to guess which way my dad will spell my name on my birthday card. Each year it’s different and it always makes me laugh.

Move On

What should we do when we make a mistake with others? When we mispronounce a name or fall into the abyss of nameless darkness? When we’re not sure how to spell it, how to say it, how to recall it?

Own it.

Take a breath. Apologize. Ask them to repeat it. Acknowledge that you may mess it up again, but you will keep trying to get it right.

Then stop fretting over the mistake. Give yourself some grace, move on, and for the love of all things sane, please don’t berate others who are trying their best.

We are all works in progress and grace goes a long, long way.

The next time you see me at the grocery store or at the end of a presentation, please come up and introduce yourself. It’s OK if you say my name wrong. I won’t correct you because at the end of the day, it’s all good. You won’t hurt my feelings by pronouncing my name wrong.

I would much rather you say, “Hi,” messing up my name in the process than never saying, “Hi,” at all.

And for those who are really curious about how I pronounce my real name, I’ll share with you my own mnemonic:

“It’s Tamara, like camera, but spelled with all A’s.”

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One Word 2019

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? How does that work out for you? Do you make it to the end of the year with completed checkboxes? Are all your line items marked off the list?

For me, New Year’s Resolutions result in failure.

Every.

Single.

Time.

I used to create a long list of goals I wanted to accomplish, my Pollyanna optimism confident in my ability to complete each one. January would start off with a bang. February would bring about some challenges. By March and April I was drowning from the riptide and by June and July I couldn’t even tell you what my initial goals were, they were so long sunk to the bottom.

When I made New Year’s Resolutions, I created a year of frustration with unfulfilled, unrealistic expectations. It impacted my self-esteem and did absolutely nothing to help me become a better version of myself.

Then, the eureka moment. As 2015 came to a close with 2016 around the bend, I embraced the concept of choosing one word to focus on for an entire year. It completely changed my perspective of resolutions.

Here are the words I have chosen the past few years:

What’s fascinating in choosing a word to focus on is that is really does become a part of your soul. When I selected “joy” for 2016, I embraced it in every way possible. I became an honorary Joy Ambassador, following the examples set by Akilah Ellison and Theresa Holloran. I referenced joy in my blog posts. I was drawn to all things joyful and it really helped me get through a tough year.

In 2017, “resilience” reminded me that I could survive the lowest of lows. I held my mother’s hand as she took her final breath, then found a way to keep moving forward.

And then, it was 2018. I wanted a word that was filled with hope for good things to come. I wanted a word that embodied the gift I wanted to share with others. There was only one word that came to mind:

Inspire.

As I reflect on 2018, I am in awe of how the word “inspire” materialized like a self-fulfilling prophecy. My boss called it “The Year of Tamara” which made me laugh every time she said it, but now looking back, I have to admit it was a crazy, incredible year. Even in my reflections, I find myself shaking my head asking, “Did all this really happen to ME?”

In 2018…

I signed my first book contract with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. to write a book about kindness. (A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn will be released in February 2019 on Amazon and Barnes and Noble! Sign up for freebies, notifications, and more here!)

I celebrated a second year of Kindness Passion Projects at our Kindness Share Fair with forty students and their teachers, Lori Cross and Jennifer Madison, then presented with Lori and Jennifer at our district’s first Inspire conference.

Visitors at our Kindness Share Fair completed a Call to Action leaving notes of how they will scatter seeds of kindness in the world.

I was awarded Teacher of the Year for Mechanicsville Elementary School and advanced to the finalist round for our district, a first for a technology integrator in our school system.

I was interviewed by the local news not once, not twice, but three times to scatter seeds of kindness in our community. (Many thanks to Amanda McDaniel, our district’s Communication Specialist, who always helps to promote the great things happening with our schools!)

I gave my first out-of-district Keynote at the Clarke County Innovation Conference (and didn’t fall off the stage!)

I co-wrote three fully funded grants to bring creative learning experiences into the classroom, then inspired other teachers to do the same. (Many thanks to the Hanover Education Foundation and the Virginia Professional Educators for these opportunities!)

I survived a near-frigid rafting trip in a paradoxical thunderstorm down the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then survived five days of disconnect deep in the heart of Yellowstone AND a saw a black bear.

In person.

And lived to tell about it.

I traveled to Chicago, Illinois to learn from some of the most inspiring educators in the world at the ISTE Conference, then spent quality time getting to know many of my DBC heroes at dinner, in the city, and during the conference. I also got to enjoy a little team bonding along the way! (Many thanks to our incredible district who recognizes that those who provide PD for others need opportunities to get PD themselves!)

I love my ITRT team so much!

I completely overhauled my website and my Instagram account. I created a Facebook group about kindness and wrote 39 blog posts about my adventures throughout the year.

While writing a book.

While being a mom.

While losing half my summer break days with a job switch to an 11-month contract.

In 2018, I survived the one year anniversary of my mother’s death then mourned the loss of my precious neighbor, Ashton, who passed away at the age of 16.

16 Hope rocks created in memory of Ashton Friedl to hide around our community.

I received the R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence to cultivate kindness for global impact, which will take me across the United States and Canada in 2019 and 2020.

I presented four sessions at the VSTE conference, including a closing Ignite, while also leading the conference’s social media committee with the amazing Margaret Sisler. I presented twice at our local EdTechRVA Conference earlier in the year as well as led a multitude of PD sessions for my district.

I wrote an article for DisruptED TV Magazine and recorded podcasts with Character Speaks, Edustations, and The Kindness Podcast.

Looking back, I’m in awe of all the opportunities I had to inspire others through my words and actions. Even though I did all these things in the course of a year, my greatest insight about the word “inspire” came when I stopped to reflect on each item listed above.

I couldn’t have done any of them if I didn’t have the support of others.

See, it’s easy to view the end result and stand in awe at the person waving the flag on the top of the mountain. But what about all the safety harnesses the person wears as he scales the walls to the top? What about all the slips that occur from not having your feet firmly planted or misjudging the weight a rock can hold before it crumbles? What about the times when the top seems unreachable and you don’t know if you will ever make it through?

In my 2018 journey, I made several mistakes and encountered failure along the way. What kept me pushing through wasn’t my willpower alone, but the encouragement of my friends, coworkers and virtual PLN.

Inspiration begins in the heart one, but magnifies on the shoulders of many.

Every single thing I did last year was the result of some form of collaboration with amazing people in my world. Perhaps it was a conversation or a brilliant moment of connectivity. Maybe it was the result of weeks laden with brainstorming, planning, and preparation. Quite possibly, it was the culmination of a lifelong journey of passion, persistence, and patience.

It was in this time of reflection that I discovered the one word that will carry me through this next year:

Uplift.

This year, I want my words and actions to uplift others.

I want to cheer you on and celebrate your accomplishments.

I want to help you take that next step when you are filled with fear.

I want to help you rise, help you soar, help you make your wildest dreams come true.

I want to be here for you, in the way others have been there for me.

Together we can make 2019 the most amazing year ever!

Do you have a #oneword for this new year? Leave a comment to share your thoughts! I would love to know your focus word, too!

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family, reflection

Ornamental Memories

As we prepare for the holiday season, it’s fun to reflect on our family traditions and those things that warm the heart. One of my favorite traditions actually begins in November with the decorating of our Christmas tree.

In years past we have waited until December to put up the tree, but with our children growing older and time constraints with weekend activities, we’ve slowly inched our way into November, putting the tree up the weekend after Black Friday (or RAK Friday, if you’ve been following my blog for a while.) Much to the chagrin of my middle child, Daniel, the past two years we’ve put the tree up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving simply out of convenience, to which he quickly laments, “Can we finish one holiday before we start another one?”

He makes me laugh.

Ever since the children were little, we have given them full reign for decorating the tree. We aren’t caught up in competing with the Joneses for the most perfectly decorated evergreen, so whatever the kids do to our tree is acceptable and loved.

There have been years where all the ornaments were clumped in one section, marking the height of the youngest who could only reach so far.  We stopped adding tinsel when the kids were babies, and our tree topper changes each year as the kids take turns choosing their favorites.

We’ve had weighted ornaments pulling down limbs, dragging their glittered sparkles along the floor as traditional white lights glisten in the background. We’ve swept up broken glass from the ornaments caught by the cat and one year had the entire base of the tree empty to avoid a toddler from grabbing and pulling off ornaments, nearly toppling over the tree.

When we decorate, we have Christmas music playing as the children wait anxiously to open the official ornament box, a well-worn, simple cardboard box with layers of clear packing tape along the edges marking decades of travel and use. With a slice of the scissors across the seam, the box bursts open and we are reminded again of the memories this unassuming container holds.

Our ornaments vary from handmade to store-bought, each playing a role in the stories of our family, from reminders of our wedding day in 1994 to each year a new child arrived. When we first got married, so many years ago, our Christmas tree was a meager three foot tree that stood on our cedar chest in the living room, a thread of popcorn and cranberries wrapped around to compensate for the lack of ornaments we could afford to buy or make. Since that time, our tree has grown well over six feet with countless memories captured and on display.

As part of our #CompelledTribe task to spotlight a treasured holiday tradition this month, I would love to share a few ornaments with you with the stories that make them special. Perhaps they will fondly remind you of the ornamental memories you have in your home, too!

Joyeux Noël

I love when teachers carve out time in their busy teaching scheduled to allow time for students to create holiday gifts for their families. Oh, if they only knew what treasures these are! When Daniel was in fifth grade, his teacher, Mrs. Post, challenged them to create a cross-stitched ornament to give away.

Even though I was an avid cross-stitcher in my youth, my son had no clue this used to be a passion of mine. He was simply completing the task set before him. However, with each needle he flossed and each stitch he created, he poured himself into making a memory that captured time, dedication, talent, and love. Each year he chooses to hang this ornament and we recall all his favorite teachers in the process. He always reminds me that he didn’t finish the bottom part, and I always remind him that it’s perfect the way it is. 

I love that he proudly displays this on our tree and never once worried about someone teasing him for cross-stitching a gift. He knew then, as he knows now, that this gift has my heart for so many reasons!

Pinky Joy

As we decorated our tree last year, our sweet cat, Pinky, curled underneath, her white fur blending in with the white trimmed edge of our tree skirt. Two weeks before Christmas, with both Katrina and I out of town, she passed away after almost a decade in our care.

This year, we have a JOY ornament to celebrate the joy she brought into our lives as the only cat we’ve ever owned. She was given to us by a friend and was the cuddliest cat you’ve ever seen. She was a princess in our home, an indoor cat who loved to taunt Flash, the neighborhood boy cat who would stretch out along our front porch, purring for attention.

Our youngest child, Caleb, adored Pinky and she cemented in him the idea that cats really do rule the world. She loved to chase a long, green fishing line around the house and greeted everyone at the door as if she was the maître d’. He made sure this ornament was front and center on our tree this year.

Our Family – 2009

In 2009, I was a new mom again, having given birth to my third child a mere nine weeks before. As a Christmas gift from Mom Letter, we received the annual Hallmark ornament, a cute little gingerbread house with a place to spotlight a family photo.

As any new mom can attest, I was exhausted and frazzled that holiday season and ended up packing away the ornament without replacing the stock photo that came with the frame. When 2010 arrived, I hung the ornament on the tree without paying attention to the fact that I had neglected to change out the photo.

During that holiday season, someone pointed out the error and in the moment, I simply laughed at my ignorance, passing off the faux pas with a joke. At the end of the season, I packed away the ornament once more, the photo unchanged.

Each year when I see this ornament I chuckle, remembering the year I was too busy to add a photo. Now, I have plenty of time to make the switch, but the memory is so funny to my soul that I keep the ornament as it is, and hang it from our tree. I am reminded of the pursuit for perfection, at which I fail miserably quite often, and the peaceful contentment that comes with accepting myself just the way I am. 

School Photo Simplicity

As mentioned above, I love ornaments made in school. When I was in Mrs. Norwood’s fourth grade class, we had a PTA parent use a copy of our fourth grade school picture to create a personalized ornament for our family. I proudly gave this ornament to my mom and she carefully hung the delicate ceramic near some other handmade ornaments I had created over the years.

Of the decades of school photos I brought home, this was the only one I ever liked. I remember my mom being so excited for me to wear the green corduroy jumper, my monogrammed initials woven in navy blue across the front. My hair was long, as it is now, a simple hairstyle with a part in the middle.

When my mom passed away last year, her husband Bob gave me the ornaments I had made for her in my childhood as part of my Christmas gift. This particular ornament brought me to tears, as the flood of memories poured into my heart, the heartbreaking loss of my mom all the more real.

Now the ornament is hung on my tree, tucked a bit within, almost 40 years old in the making. Perhaps, one day, it will hang on the tree of my children and grandchildren, too.

Now that the kids are older and taller, I no longer have to hang the higher ornaments and I can sit back and watch the transformation take place in front of my eyes. It is truly a magical moment to behold! We often finish our task with hot chocolate and a cookie or two, and finish decorating the rest of our home to be ready for the holidays.

If you have a treasured tradition, I would love for you to comment below! It’s always fun to get to know one another better with the moments that resonate on the heart.

From our family to yours, we wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and restful time to restore and renew as we look forward to a brand new year around the corner!

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education, ITRT, reflection

Pirate Day 2018

Arrrgh there, mateys! Welcome to Pirate Day 2018!

In our second year of promoting the pirate spirit of risk-taking, communication, and collaboration, I invited our gifted-talented teacher, Maureen Ambrose, to help me prepare the crew and transform our Innovation Lab into a sea of grand adventure. What a day we created!

We started planning in August, quickly realizing that Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 19) was not an option this year as it was a half-day in our school calendar with a district-wide teacher laptop rollout that afternoon. Before we even raised our flag, we had to choose another date.

After cross-referencing several calendars and focusing on our “why”, we realized we needed to offer this amazing learning experience on two days instead of one, providing additional opportunities for teachers and students to join in the fun. As luck would have it (or perhaps it was simply the shifting of the wind?), we discovered a month later that the date we chose was the same date as our school’s Author Visit, the third grade Ag Day, and school picture day! Egads!

Did we throw our hands up in the air and rip up our treasure map because of all the unforseen obstacles? ABSOLUTELY NOT! To quote Dave Burgess, the ultimate pirate captain himself, “It’s not supposed to be easy – it’s supposed to be worth it!”

Well, friends, let me tell you – IT. WAS. WORTH. IT!! We had an AMAZING two days filled with wide-eyed wonder, active anticipation, and student engagement was at an all-time high! If you are looking for an innovative way to focus on the 5 Cs while integrating technology and instructional content, keep reading to open this treasure box of insight and inspiration!

Planning

All great pirates know that half the joy in adventure is dreaming big. Maureen and I started our planning process by brainstorming dozens of activities we wanted to do, then whittled them down to align with our state standards, district goals, and grade level expectations. We knew we wanted to promote the concept of station rotations and we also wanted classroom teachers to be an integral part of the learning process (they needed to steer the ship, too!) In that mindset, we decided to plan a 40 minute adventure with three stations, students rotating to a new landing every ten minutes, leaving time for a five minute introduction and a five minute reflection before the next ship sailed the seas.

Since the needs of kindergarteners are much different than the needs of fifth graders, we knew we would have to provide a variety of activities, but our transition time for setting up/tearing down stations would be limited, so that led us to create two pirate days – one for K-2 students and another for 3-5 students.

We created a Google Sheets sign-up and changed the sharing settings so that anyone with the link could edit the sheet. We sent our email out to teachers inviting them to sign up for a designated time and were blown away when our sheet was nearly filled the first day! WOW!

Activities

Reflecting on Pirate Day 2017, we wanted to offer new pirate-themed activities for our students while continuing the “best of the best” from the year before. Since designing an unsinkable pirate ship was a huge hit in our Makerspace area last year, we kept that activity going, but with a few enhancements based on lessons learned.

The concept was simple: Using only one small sheet of aluminum foil, one popsicle stick, and masking tape, create a ship that could float and hold all the treasure (pennies) without sinking in the turbulent sea (a plastic tub of water.)

WAIT – did I just say water? In an Innovation lab with laptops and iPads and robots nearby? Yep! You read that correctly! See, we can do amazing things if we train our crew before we board the boat. It’s all part of the preparation!

Below are the key tips to remember should you try this with your pirate crew:

  1. Buy LOTS of absorbant paper towels. Those thin, brown sheets of sandpaper masquerading as paper towels in your dispensers by the sink will do nothing more but crinkle and curl, making more of a mess than you already had. It’s worth the expense of purchasing the good stuff, trust me! We used Viva Choose-a-Sheet paper towels and each small group was responsible for cleaning up their own station, even the kindergarteners!
  2. Cover your tables with cheap, plastic tablecloths. It cost us a whopping $2.00 to provide an easy-to-wipe surface for any water spills, then when Pirate Day was done we rolled up the table cloths and threw them away for easy clean up.
  3. Buy pop-up foil sheets. Did you know you can purchase 500 sheets of foil for less than two venti drinks at Starbucks? It’s true and worth every single penny. Productive pirates know that saving time reaps great rewards so buy the box and rock on with your day!
  4. Provide pennies, but skip the cute paper plates. I bought four rolls of pennies (for another $2.00) and divided them into four cute, pirate plates I found in the party section of Target. Great idea on the pennies – complete fail on the plates. By the third class, this pirate knew she had to find another way to store her treasure as the paper plates were completely destroyed from the water on the coins. Using styrofoam plates as a last-minute replacement saved my sanity and made it easy to drain extra water from treasure fished out from the bottom of the sea. If you are reading this now, make an even better choice and use a small plastic plate or shallow bowl instead.
  5. Make a Flipgrid grid and have your devices ready to capture the fun! Since Flipgrid changed their grid set-up, we now use Student Lists with our grids. Prior to Pirate Day, I created a grid that Maureen and I could use to create topics for the stations we wanted to capture. Take a peek here to see a sample of our ships and which designs were unsinkable!

Here are the new activities we offered for each of the Pirate Days:

(K-2) Pirate Ship Creation – Using Brain Flakes, students create a pirate ship using the colorful, interlocking discs. Then, pirates count the various colors used recording tally marks and/or numbers on their recording sheet. As an extra bonus, students can share their creations on a Flipgrid topic.

(K-2) Create a Pirate – Using free coloring sheets from Quiver Vision, we printed the pirate sheet from Book Week and allowed students to color their pirate. After coloring, students used the Quiver app on iPads to make their pirate come to life, talking to them in a unique augmented reality (AR) experience. We shared with teachers how they can access more coloring sheets to use as a fun center rotation in their classroom.

(3-5) Pirates of OZ (Ozobots) – Using Ozobot robots and pre-printed coding tracks, students designed their own path from ship to treasure, using color codes to guide their robot along the way. Students were encouraged to extend the tracks or draw new shapes using a black marker. Students were able to watch their Ozobot travel and redesign courses if needed should an Ozobot walk the plank right off the page.

(3-5) Talk Like a Pirate – Using a Seesaw activity template, students joined a Pirate Seesaw class, typed things a pirate might say using the suggestion sheets we provided for inspiration, then recorded themselves speaking their best pirate-ese! Best of all, they shared their talks on Seesaw so other students could listen and learn, too!

Reflections

We wanted to create the best pirate learning experience we could with total immersion. In addition to creating space for rotations with the flexible seating in our Innovation Lab, we added blue tablecloths to simulate water, decorated from one end of the room to the other and donned our favorite pirate attire, greeting all pirate crew members at the entrance. As music from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack blared from the speakers, we guided our pirates past the pirate ship into the galley for the introduction to our day.

As I spoke with students, Maureen pulled the classroom teacher to the side and gave her a quick run through of what she would do at her station. From there it was all-hands-on-deck as we began our activities, rotating every 10 minutes, thanks to Maureen’s reliable phone timer.

After the last rotation, we gathered the energized travelers back to the galley for a reflection of our learning experiences.

Resilience. Grit. Determination. Perseverance. We saw these characteristics in our students as they worked through the various challenges they encountered in their rotations. They discovered that masking tape loses its stickiness when it gets wet. They realized the importance of making colored dots the same width and length for coding. They shared their unique insights on what it meant to be a pirate learner, a risk-taker, a success.

We didn’t have a single discipline issue from any class on any day.

Our students were completely engaged in the tasks at hand and most didn’t want their time to end. We made learning empowering, relevant, and fun. In fact, our Pirate Day was so successful, we are going to repeat it again in the spring for the classes who couldn’t attend in the fall!

We hope our grand adventures on the high seas has inspired you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. We look forward to sharing more themed days as we continue throughout the year!


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education, kindness, reflection

Socktober

With the change in seasons, our three kindness classes are up and running and we are well on our way to learning more about empathy and compassion through our lessons. We began the month by brainstorming our #oneword for kindness, sharing in small groups, then creating a digital word cloud of our responses using the online website AnswerGarden. We will do this activity again at the end of school to see how our perspectives of kindness have changed throughout the year.

We spent the remainder of our time creating Kindness Journals and learning more about the #CelebrateMonday movement on Twitter (created by my great pal, Sean Gaillard, principal and author of The Pepper Effect.) Using my Twitter account, we saw all the positive things people posted on social media with that hashtag, which dipped into an impromptu digital citizenship reminder about words we use online and the impact they have on others.

In our second lesson this month, we jotted down acts of kindness we had seen/received/completed. We then listened to our first kindness book, Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, as we enjoyed our flexible seating around the room.

What makes this book such a powerful story are all the ways we can infer information about the main character, Jeremy. We discovered through words and illustrations that Jeremy and his grandmother didn’t have much money for non-essential items. They shopped in thrift stores. They rode through town on public transportation. They graciously accepted donations from others while still striving to do things independently.

We learned that kindness involves sacrifice which carries a variety of emotions: frustration, anger, responsibility, joy. Our discussions blurred the lines of social status and eventually led us to ponder the challenges of being homeless, out on the streets, with nowhere to go, with no one to help.

It’s then that we discovered through our own brainstorming that we can be the good and make a positive difference in the lives of others who are struggling. We listened to Kid President discuss three questions that could change the world and delighted in the realization that we, too, can join in his mission:

Socktober.

For the month of October, we are collecting socks to donate to those who are homeless. While our students’ initial images of homeless people focuseded on old men living in cardboard boxes on the side of the street, we quickly learned that most homeless families are women and small children with one in thirty American children experiencing homelessness each year. We pondered the fact that we have homeless families in our school district and quite possibly in our school as well.

With service to others on our minds, we encouraged our students to talk with their families about #Socktober and set a goal to donate 150 pairs of socks between the three classes by the end of the month.

It didn’t take long to put intention into action.

The next week our bag was filled, requiring a cardboard box to hold our donations. We then overflowed that box and had to use an even larger storage basket to hold all the socks! Even today we had students adding to our collection!

We are hopeful that our small gifts of love will brighten someone else’s day when they need it the most. If you would like to donate to our #Socktober mission, please comment below or message me on Twitter. We have two more weeks to bring smiles to others and would love for you to join in our fun!

A special thanks to Brad Montague and Kid President for their efforts in sharing kindness with others in unique and empowering ways. We are truly better together in all that we do! Check out their book Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome – you will be so glad you did!


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For the Love of Reading

“What kind of books do you like to read?”

I have to laugh when I hear someone ask this question, especially to children. Many will answer with a series or author name; a few will respond with a genre. Some will stare blankly with a shrug of their shoulders indicating disinterest in the question altogether. Even in elementary school, students have begun to label themselves by reading ability or interest. Have you ever heard one of these responses?

“I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not a good reader.”

“Reading is boring.”

My earliest memories of books revolve around my mom who was an avid reader. While we never had a formal bookshelf in our home, she would have stacks of books in her closet, under the coffee table, and in various bags in our spare bedroom. I can still see her now, curled up in a corner of the couch, covered in a blanket, hardback book opened with crisp, new pages waiting to be turned.

My mom’s passion for reading trickled down to me in small and meaningful ways. Unfortunately, my love for reading was a late discovery, as I was a product of the Red Bird, Blue Bird, Black Bird grouping of a decades-old educational system that judged my reading ability by lower-level comprehension questions and oral fluency peer comparison. According to my report card, I was an average reader. According to my passion, I was a skilled and reflective orator, retelling and correlating storylines to life lessons, emphasizing inspirational character traits with each story shared.

Since that time, I have easily read hundreds of books in a variety of genres that shift depending on my own life stages. No one requires me to take a test to prove my learning and I am freed from narrow constraints that dictate my reading selection.

I can read any book, at any time, without judgment or expectation.

I am a life-long reader.

From one of my first and favorite novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, to the humorous and sometimes horrific insights of Iggie’s House and Blubber by Judy Blume, my early teen years found comfort in learning about people’s experiences: their highs and lows, successes and failures.

In high school, I discovered biblical inspirations, marking my favorite quotes with colorful highlighters that occasionally bled through the other page. Handwritten notes with personal references in the margins reminded me that I am wonderfully made and bound for greatness. I was drawn to personal narratives shared in Daily Guideposts, providing inspiration 365 days of the year. Many of those verses and stories still come to mind today when I face trials and tribulations of living in an imperfect world.

In college, I bought a kit to build my own two-leveled bookshelf. It was made of cheap particle board and a bit wobbly, but it was mine. I quickly filled it with Shel Silverstein poetry books like Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic and treasured young adult novels like Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia. I vowed to never watch a movie until I had read the book first.

In my twenties, I found great escape in the twisted tales spun by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, developing empathy for characters like Christopher Snow in Fear Nothing. Then my interests took a complete turnaround when I transitioned to motherhood, with a focus on baby board books like Guess How Much I Love You capturing the unexplainable love I had for the newborn baby rocking asleep in my arms.

I read to my child.

For my child.

With my child.

As I had more children, I made sure each had a bookshelf in their bedroom. The first was built by my husband, a simple 2′ x 4′ storage space crafted from pine and custom-sized to fit baby books, which was passed along to each child as they arrived. When a child outgrew the baby bookshelf, another one would appear in their room, magically filled with early reader books, graphic novels, and other books I had found at yard sales or Goodwill.

While there may not have been money to purchase name-brand shoes or the newest game console, there was always money available for books. From Junie B. Jones lamenting her first grade woes to Jack and Annie sharing their treehouse adventures, I tried my best to pass along my mother’s love for reading to her grandchildren.

Years later, when that same mother who sparked my love for reading faced her greatest battle of Stage 4 lung cancer (at the same time my mother-in-law was battling Stage 4 colon cancer), I turned to books like Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant to guide me through my loss and grief. On the day after my mother’s death, I received a package on my doorstep: Driving Miss Norma, the book my mom had pre-ordered for me as a Christmas gift six months before.

Even after her death, my mom was encouraging me to keep reading.

I am now in a season of enriching my educational practice with books like Teach Like a Pirate, Blogging for EducatorsBe Real, Make Learning Magical, Lead Like a Pirate, The Path to Serendipity, Lead with Culture, Professionally Driven and Social LEADia (and so many more – this paragraph could be a blog post in and of itself!) I am discovering the joys of reflective practice and learning from educators who stretch my thinking with their encouraging words.

I can also hear a new whisper on my heart:

“Write and share.”

In the journey from reader to writer, I see the interconnectedness of both, how words consumed and internalized are woven together into expressions and examples bursting forth to be shared. I have learned from writers before me how to scoop up fragments and phrases and mold them into visual experiences that unfold inside a reader’s mind.

To write well, you must be well read.

I am still perfecting my craft as a writer as I share blog posts like this, sparked by writing groups like #CompelledTribe who challenge me each month to keep writing, keep sharing, keep developing.

This time next year I will be an author myself with others holding my book to read. The thought is nearly incomprehensible. I am humbled to join the Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. crew as an honorary pirate preparing for her maiden voyage. I can almost see in my mind’s eye my mom sitting on her sofa, wrapped in a blanket, reading my book A Passion for Kindness, her eyes brimming with tears of joy.

It’s a journey that will soon come full circle.

In celebration of #NationalBookMonth this October, I challenge you to share your experiences with books that have made an impact on your life. You may be surprised to discover that your words of reflection may inspire someone to add a new book to their collection! If you share a post, tag me, too – your words inspire me as well!


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education, grief, reflection

On That Day

 

On that day, I opened the door to my third grade classroom having no idea that our country would be under attack within the hour.

On that day, I marked attendance, taking for granted that every child would be present that day and the next.

On that day, I watched as students unpacked their backpacks and got settled in, waiting for me to teach them lessons they needed to learn.

On that day, I discovered just how important it was to be their teacher.


They were seven and eight years old. They had no concept of terror other than the make-believe monsters that hid under their beds and the shadows that played tricks on them at night. They slept with their favorite stuffed animals and baby dolls and wrote stories about cats and dogs, flowers and friends.

Our day was blissfully normal in every way. In Tennessee, school had begun a few weeks before; we were still getting to know one another. A knock on my door changed everything.

“A plane just flew into the Twin Towers. It’s on TV, but don’t let your kids see.”

Minutes later, I took the students to their specials class, then raced back to my room to watch the events unfold in real-time horror.

Another plane.

Fire.

Smoke.

Collapse.

Chaos.

Shock.

Students returned to class and I had to continue teaching as if nothing had happened. How could I begin to explain that day when I didn’t even understand it myself?

All I could do was hug my students a little tighter, a little longer, reminding them how important they were to me. I told each and every student that I loved them.

It’s been 17 years since 9/11 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

And each year, I receive a message from one of those eight year olds who sat in my class that day.

“Hey, Mrs. Letter. I hope all is well for you. I just wanted to say that every year I remember that day and I remember the conversation we had on the reading mat in your room. I remember the questions we asked and the confusion we all had at what was happening and why those “bad guys” would do such a thing, etc. but I also remember feeling safe in your classroom. I always knew that as long as I was in your class (even from wasps… which you taught us how to ignore when they fly in the portable) and I knew I was loved. Pretty vivid memories for a third grader but that’s the impact you left on me and I thought I’d remind you!”

Some years the message sent is long; other years the message is short and sweet. But for one day of the year we are connected again, teacher and student, with a bond that will never be broken. I am reminded of the life-long impact we have on our students’ lives with our words and actions, even in those moments of unscripted conversations that are raw and real.

We keep our students safe.

We remind them they are loved.

We put on our battle armor and shield our students from a world that is complicated and cruel at times.

On that day, I decided evil would not win.

On that day, I discovered love was louder.


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